|The New York
Powell Trip in the Catskills
By Tina Traster
May 12, 2011 -- Julie Powell’s life is one of those genuine Cinderella stories.
The Julia Child-inspired cooking blog she wrote while working a mind-numbing government job turned into a best-selling book and then a hit movie, “Julie & Julia,” starring Amy Adams and Meryl Streep.
Powell’s follow-up book, “Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat and Obsession,” was an explicit account of learning to carve up animals at an upstate butchery and an aching reflection on a two-year extramarital affair.
In the final pages of “Cleaving,” Powell muses about buying a country house in the Catskills. And that’s where The Post visits her on a damp spring morning.
The author is wearing an angel-sleeved flowing frock with high-heel strappy sandals — think F. Scott Fitzgerald garden party rather than mid-April-mud season in Olivebridge, a little-known town about 3 miles west of the Ashokan Reservoir in Ulster County. Powell’s restraining an Italian Mastiff-mix named Beatrice (Robert, a beloved dog featured in her writing, has passed away), while effusively welcoming me to her home.
“Something smells good,” we say.
“It’s last night’s goulash,” Powell replies. “I’m reheating it.”
Powell’s husband, Eric, takes Beatrice outside while we head to a screened-in porch surrounded by rock gardens and rhododendrons. There’s a small pond and an in-ground swimming pool. We sit on wide white couches as big as daybeds. Wind chimes tinkle, suggesting rain is coming. Powell, whose dark curls coil around her face, looks like a contented cat who has found her lair.
But for Powell, contentment has been harder to achieve than commercial success. After becoming famous, she started a tempestuous affair. Eric had his dalliances. There was a brief separation.
In late 2008, after her second book was published, Powell, 38, wanted a country retreat where she could deconstruct her life and put it back together. She wanted to buy the house alone, even though she was married to Eric. She knew Ulster County, two hours from New York City, because she interned for six months at Fleisher’s, a butcher shop in Kingston. Realtors showed her Woodstock houses with gourmet kitchens and saline pools. Powell insisted she wanted country-cottage cozy.
“No drum circles, please,” she told them, referring to hip yoga towns with loads of second-home owners from the city.
A 1,200-square-foot, two-bedroom, 1950s shingled Cape set on 5 acres fit the bill. She bought it for $460,000, a day before Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy. And while her timing might not have been ideal, it doesn’t look like she’s going anywhere soon.
The unpretentious two-story cottage sits behind a wooden gate on a country lane with old houses and derelict trailers. It’s not near anything in particular; Olivebridge has no town center, just a post office. The house is 20 minutes from Fleisher’s, where the Powells stop to buy meat before they settle into the house for long, lazy weekends. The two live in a rented loft in Long Island City during the week with Beatrice, plus a cat and a snake.
The house became “a place where Eric and I could start coming together again,” says Powell (the couple met when they were both 18). Spending time at their retreat, where there is no cellphone service and anything considered civilization is at least a 20-minute drive away, has put their marriage on the road to recovery. These days, a crisis is more likely centered on the hazards of country living: They are still trying to figure out what to do about the windowsills that were gnawed to the quick by a squirrel.
The rural refuge is filled with books and garage-sale furniture, except for the occasional plush accent, like a pillow or throw rug that Powell’s mother, an interior designer in Austin, gave her.
With its low ceilings and traditional blue- and green-painted built-ins, the home feels more early 1900s, less mid-century. The living room features wide-plank pine floors and a stone fireplace. The dining room has a wooden country table and a collection of candlesticks on the windowsills. Both small bedrooms are upstairs.
Ask Powell about this object or that and there’s a good chance she’ll say it was something she gave her husband for a birthday, or something he gave her for a special occasion. For example, there’s the reproduction of the wooden portable “book box” — something Thomas Jefferson allegedly invented to transport his books from Monticello to Washington, DC — that Powell gifted Eric. Or a simple Italian cuckoo clock Eric gave her.
The functional country kitchen, with Formica counters and a mosaic backsplash, has counters crammed with spices; dishes are in the sink. There are no fancy appliances or cookware. In fact, there’s little in the kitchen to suggest that Powell built a writing career cooking 524 of Julia Child’s recipes in 365 days.
But hanging on the wall are two diplomas: One for Julia Child from Le Cordon Bleu — it’s actually a prop from the movie “Julie & Julia.” The second, however, is genuine. It’s an honorary diploma Le Cordon Bleu gave to Powell for helping promote the culinary arts.
“I hardly deserve that,” Powell says with a blush.
Some days, the author wishes she could live upstate full-time. It’s certainly a tempting spot for someone whose next work will be fiction. She is working on a post-apocalyptic comedy of errors about a plus-size model who becomes unable to eat.
Is there something autobiographical in this?
“It’s a story about searching for one’s identity,” says Powell, who suspects that writing fiction ultimately will be even more cathartic than writing memoirs.
Meanwhile, she’s learning to live more comfortably with her own fairy-tale success.
Julie Powell’s favorite things
* A Thomas Jefferson “book box” she bought for her husband, Eric
* A small cabinet in the living room that looks like a stack of old books
* A painting she picked up in Ecuador of a man-angel who is armed with a shotgun
* The cuckoo clock Eric gave her
* The diplomas hanging in her kitchen
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